Liev Schreiber’s ‘Ray Donovan’ scores movie finale after “Donofans” make some noise

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BY DAN BUFFA, SPECIAL FOR THE JEWISH LIGHT

They say good things come to those who wait. “Ray Donovan” fans know this very well in 2021. 

Earlier this month, Liev Schreiber, title star and producer of the series, announced on Instagram that “Donofans,” the nickname given to the hardcore fans of the Showtime drama, were getting their wish. After an anti-climatic series finale two years ago, the network announced they were cancelling the series, denying Schreiber and showrunner David Hollander a fitting finish to their story of the tortured fixer who cracked skulls in California for the first few seasons of the show, before the story shifted to New York.

I did my own campaigning for the show’s return,  because I believe every creator of a series deserves the same right as a director of a movie: the right to finish what they started. The eldest of three troubled brothers (the others played by Eddie Marsan and Dash Mihok) and a departed sister, Ray builds his own cells of remorse over the course of seven seasons, years that saw the show shift from a regular tough guy fixing problems tale to something more-a series that talked about child abuse in the church and trying to run from a predetermined fate. 

Schreiber, whose mother is Jewish, anchors the tale throughout and does it after axing a lot of his own lines. What actor deletes his own lines? Schreiber, whose role as a producer allows him to make Ray a man of few words, doesn’t need a lot of dialogue to get a message across. It’s a trait that the Shakespeare-trained thespian has used to steal scenes in high-profile films like “Spotlight” and own others such as “Chuck.” He’s a performer who can inhabit any sort of role and it doesn’t matter if he has a quarter of the time to do it. 

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It’s a characteristic that serves the show well, with the ensemble cast all sharing their own pain and talent. Marsan sinks himself into Terry Donovan, a former fighter with Parkinson’s Disease who runs a boxing gym, but feels the urge to stick around fading. Mihok’s Bunchy is a classic case of a young life halted inside a church and cemented in his resulting teens as a broken man. Paula Malcolmson, who plays strong women who can deconstruct a domineering man in her sleep, is Ray’s wife, and Kerris Dorsey (she was great as Brad Pitt’s daughter in “Moneyball”) plays his daughter. All the Donovans feel their own measures and alternate blends of pain, and Hollander dials that tension up during each season. 

The last time we saw Ray, he was digging a ditch in the woods, covering up his latest mistake or encounter. If you combined George Clooney’s problem-solver from “Michael Clayton” with Jonathan Banks’ Mike from “Breaking Bad,” you’d have Schreiber’s anti-hero. Dressed for a funeral and trusting a baseball bat more than a weapon most of the time, he’s a man apart. That makes for an intoxicating watch for Donofans. 

They made their voices heard loud enough that Showtime decided to rethink their plan. Instead of that lasting image of digging a ditch out of mad despair, Ray will find his way back to the Big Apple’s stomping ground to dispense, and take, more complicated justice to movie stars, producers, high-powered business minds, and the kind of crooked authority that get dirtier as the day gets long. 

It won’t be another season though. Hollander and company will follow Vince Gilligan’s “El Camino” lead and produce a movie finale. A one and done closer can be the best form for older television shows to seal up their doors with. The shooting schedule will be cut in half, which makes the availability of such a versatile cast easier to navigate. The writers can now carefully select which story threads to chase down and which ones to abandon, or leave draped in previous season ambiguity. 

Here’s what I would like to see from the “Ray Donovan” movie: 

-Keep the focus of the final round on the Donovan family. Don’t spread yourself too thin with boatloads of cameos and guest spots. Unlike a 12-hour season, a two hour film requires supreme focus. 

-Go for it! I mean, take a bold route with these well-worn characters. Shake the story up. Do what “Banshee” did in its final season and kill off a main character within the first 20 minutes, setting up the rest of the film. Don’t spend too much time digging into the Donovan past, unless there is a juicy, untold thread buried there. Earn the time. 

-Shape the tale around Liev’s Ray, who still has a lot of issues and demons to work out. 

Truth be told, this is his best and most layered work in film or television. Schreiber withholds so many answers to Ray’s madness while making him someone to root for, that the show grows wiser and stronger with its lead going for broke. The actor can pack years of meaning into “sure,” which is Ray’s favorite way to respond to people asking him to live dangerously. He keeps us watching, even when we can’t even see him work.

Schreiber’s voice can be heard in hundreds of HBO Sports documentaries and commercials, even the great Stella Artois last year. With a sinister voice that can soften at times, his narration comes off as thoughtful and precise, especially during the boxing docu-series, “24/7.” Often, he’s recording these on the location of another project, talking into a microphone about a wide receiver as rain falls on a makeshift tent. A man of action, “Donofans” will get to see Liev’s avenger one last time in 2022.  

Not bad work for a guy rumored to be named after the doctor who saved his Jewish mother’s life, or at least that’s what his dad said. 

I’ll be watching the eighth and final story of “Ray Donovan” sometime next year. 

This time, the fans won.